Harmon: Uprooting racism amid the COVID-19 pandemic
Over the past week, there have been many local demonstrations for racial equity. Although questions have been raised about the safety of demonstrations amid the current COVID-19 pandemic, I have seen most participants being respectful and practicing precautions to reduce the potential for exposure or spread of the disease.
The timing and purpose of these demonstrations is important. The COVID-19 pandemic cannot serve as a “convenient” barrier against anti-racist action. I know this view may seem inconsistent with local public health orders, so let me explain further.
Racism and oppression are lethal public health issues. They predate the COVID-19 pandemic by hundreds of years. Although the violent and unjust deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery serve as a disheartening catalyst for change, let’s be clear — the chronic effects of racism are far more pervasive and must be acknowledged.
People of color face significant health disparities compared to white people. The disparities are not a result of biological differences, rather long-standing systems of oppression and bias which subject people of color to discrimination in our health care, educational, and governmental systems; decreased access to medical care, healthy housing and healthy food; unsafe working conditions, mass incarceration and the toxic effects of fear and stress.
In Eagle County, despite making up 30% of the county’s population, our Hispanic neighbors and community members are rarely seen in positions of leadership in the workforce or on boards and commissions that make decisions that impact every community member. Absent this voice, decisions are made without understanding the needs of our Hispanic community and often perpetuate the health inequities described above.
Active engagement, listening and authentic partnerships with our Hispanic community members can form strategies and policies that will yield improved health outcomes for everyone in our community. I am proud to say that for Eagle County Public Health and Environment, this is not our future state, rather it is becoming our current norm.
We still have work to do and we see the local demonstrations for racial equity as being necessary and critically important at this moment. They serve to ensure a collective silence does not perpetuate acceptance of health disparities as a result of systemic racism. They also serve to build allyship and unity toward a community that can be anti-racist, compassionate and incusive of all human beings.
Yes, COVID-19 is still present in our community. Demonstrating solidarity to the cause should continue to be done in a way that is keeping yourself, your family, and your community healthy by practicing the Five Commitments of Containment:
- I will maintain 6 feet of physical distance from non-household members
- I will wash or sanitize my hands often
- I will cover my face in public with a cloth face covering
- I will stay home if I am sick
- I will get tested immediately if I have symptoms
This is not a political view. It is a public health view. It is based on the underpinnings of health that disproportionately affect community members because of the color of their skin, which is unjust and unacceptable.
Let’s bring about this change together in the safest way possible currently. Let’s aspire to be a community where all members are seen and heard, and where everyone has the opportunity for a healthy and fulfilling life. It is hard work and will take a long time to see the benefits of our collective action … but anything short of this should not be acceptable.
Heath Harmon is the director of Eagle County Public Health and Environment.
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